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Diet and Nutrition for Young Runners

By Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.

Competitive or leisure running is a popular form of exercise among people of all ages. Young runners, especially girls and young women, have increased nutritional requirements. Runners who lack adequate nutrition may see their performance diminish, or suffer from increased injuries or health problems.


Proper nutrition is important for young runners who may still be growing and developing, and require additional calories and nutrients. Young women runners have an increased risk for the female athletic triad, which is a combination of amenorrhea, osteoporosis and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Calorie Basics

Caloric needs increase for young runners, especially distance runners. For children and young adults who are at a healthy weight, monitoring body weight is a fairly good way to determine if calorie needs are being met. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, active males ages 14 to 30 require approximately 2,800 to 3,200 calories per day, and active females in the same age group require about 2,400 calories per day. However distance runners may need additional calories to maintain a healthy body weight.


An athlete’s diet should be different from a sedentary individual. Carbohydrates are an important fuel source for runners; not consuming adequate carbohydrates can drastically affect an athlete’s performance. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, an athlete’s diet composition should consist of 60 percent to 70 percent carbohydrates, 12 percent to 15 percent protein and 20 percent to 30 percent of daily calories from fats.

Pre-competition Recommendations

Nutrition requirements are different before a long run or race in order to maximize performance. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, a pre-competition meal should be easily digestible, low in protein and fat the day of the event, high in solid carbohydrates three to four hours before the event, contain liquid carbohydrates two to three hours before the event and free of sugary foods one hour before the run. Hydration is also important before and during a run or race.


Iron and calcium intake is important in young athletes, as deficiencies may result in osteoporosis or anemia. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, children ages 14 to 19 years old require at least 1,300 mg of calcium, while adults aged 19 to 50 years old require at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Menstruating young women and distance runners have an increased risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia. According to the National Institutes of Health, boys ages 14 to 18 require 11 mg of iron, men ages 19 and older require 8 mg, girls ages 14 to 18 require 15 mg and women 19 to 50 years old require 18 mg of iron per day.

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